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Friday, August 12, 2016

Movie Review: #Anthropoid

Anthropoid is both a great character drama and a violent, bloody siege film.

Review by Matt Cummings

Among the chief complaints I have about Hollywood is their desire to modify a historical tale to make it either more pleasing or more dramatic. Adding new characters, or even changing the ending is like telling us the sky is really red or that Captain Kirk wears a blue shirt. Luckily, Director Sean Ellis's drama Anthropoid falls into none of the pitfalls of other Hollywood demands, turning in at once a great character drama and a terse action siege pic.

As the shadow of WWII sweeps over Europe, resistance cells throughout the continent struggle to keep Hitler's armies at bay. For agents Kubis (Cillain Murphy) and Gabcik (Jamie Dornan), the war has taken on new importance: they've been sent back to their home of Czechoslovakia to assassinate none other than SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the architect behind the Final Solution. The job will be difficult, especially since the resistance there has been reduced to a few men including Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones). Faced with limited intelligence, Kubis and Gabcik make a bold move to assassinate Heydrich, touching off a fierce hunt by the Nazis and a bloody ending that could change the face of the war in Europe.

Anthropoid is a slow-burning assassination film, no doubt. There's lots of long stares and Director Ellis lays on the browns as both Dornan and Murphy are called upon to do the heavy dramatic lifting. For the most part, both do amazingly well with the material by Ellis and Anthony Ferwin. Murphy is an SJF fave, existing as one of the best (and perhaps least appreciated) character actors in the business. Here, he plays the dour but focused Kubis complete with piercing looks and absolutely solid acting chops. He really imbues Kubis with an 'all or nothing' mentality, especially when it's revealed that he's made no plans for escape. This plan will work or he will die. Dornan has been much maligned for his passive 50 Shades of Grey, but here he turns in a superior performance, granting Gabcik with both a sense of humanity and a hero's will that's tested early and often. The best part is that Dornan fails several times before the siege begins before becoming that hero in the last bloody 15 minutes. Like any successful film, Anthropoid needs its leads to come through and Dornan and Murphy certainly do that.

Anthropoid is the first film I've seen from Ellis, but he certainly doesn't disappoint. I appreciate much of what he does here, although it's safe to say that audiences might not think of the same for the first hour. When a broken teacup is the most action that happens as our team preps for the assassination, one might wonder if they've made a big mistake taking a chance on what's really a niche drama. But that's the beauty of Anthropoid, and the reality of spycraft: researching travel routes, prepping the location, making friends with the locals, all which leads up to the event. And when that happens, Ellis moves quickly into an even better war siege picture. He loves the handheld as the Nazis bombard a church where the conspirators are holed up, resulting in some of the most realistic close-quarters action we've seen this year. But he also succeeds at painting 1940's Prague in earthy and dreary tones, sending a strong message that both the human and action parts of this story deserve the same attention.

Some critics have complained that Anthropoid suffers from a lackluster start, an opinion I do not share especially when one considers Ellis' strategy. In building his story up slowly, Ellis reels us in for the final act, deepening the impact of what ultimately takes place. For Kubris and Gabcik, there's no escape, and Ellis boldly tells us a story of humans struggling for their freedom rather than succumbing to one that declares that all heroes survive, behind fiercely patriotic music and The Power Walk. That reality is either going to play very well with those who complain about Hollywood's 'happy ending' ultimatums or divide audiences who claim today's world feels unshakably similar to Anthropoid. Either way, this film is perfect for the independent cinema, an important film about the true cost of freedom and those individuals who get caught up in its defense.

Anthropoid shows us that great historically accurate stories can be as effective as those "based on a true story," and that independent film is still an effective conduit in which tell this relatively unknown tale. Filled with terrific performances and a stunning siege shootout, don't be surprised if its uncompromising ending leaves you a bit depressed. Others might find Anthropoid's early character development a little slow; but once it gets going you'll find yourself ready to join the resistance.

Anthropoid is rated R for violence and some disturbing images and has a runtime of 120 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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